Sunday, July 8, 2012

Space Brothers 9: Individual Resolve

Because so many anime series are adapted from established franchises in other media (usually manga) with their own pacing and narrative divisions, you can often end up with awkward episodes which don't really work as story units in themselves.  (The same is often true of American shows adapted from non-TV media -- Game of Thrones, anyone?)  From all appearances, "Individual Resolve" would appear to be one of those episodes, with two main storylines seemingly glued together.  The only problem is that Space Brothers is an original story with no original manga to explain this strange structure.

This episode consists of two fairly discrete parts, both quiet and rather quotidian.  The first deals with the fallout, or lack thereof, from last episode's "cliffhanger", when Mutta discovered Hibito's will and came to the abrupt realization of his brother's mortality.  In the second, he reunites with his peers from the second exam and has another quasi-romantic encounter with Serika.  This structure has its benefits -- it's hard to imagine either story being interesting when expanded to 20 minutes, and we really should advance the plot after spending 3 episodes on Mutta waiting for test results.  The relaxed pace of Space Brothers can teeter on the edge of boredom, and perhaps splitting these stories up would send it careening off to one side.

At the same time, slowness is what makes the show distinct.  Its plot and dominant ideas seem lifted out of a vaguely educational shounen anime -- a long round of testing, striving to be the best, terse declarations, masculine bonding, masculine self-doubt, and uplifting music the whole way through.  But it also realizes the adult consequences of these tropes.  By making us feel the wait for the test results, the show realizes the time between excitements that most series gloss over (although it does manage to inject some excitement in Mutta's vacation.)  Similarly, the will is significant not just because it highlights Hibito's mortality, but also the practical considerations of mortality, the offensively mundane business of deciding who gets his stuff after he dies.

This leads once again to a clash between Mutta's idealism and the world around him.  Mutta is a bit of an overgrown child, still hopped up on his young self's idolization of astronauts (the frequent flashbacks to his childhood, where he seems fairly similar to his current self and Hibito doesn't, cement that more than anything), and this is what leads to the overreactions that make him such a great comedic character.  When no one else is disturbed by Hibito's will, Mutta is almost outraged at their lack of affect.

In a way Space Brothers is an adult coming-of-age story, although not as obvious a one as, say, Welcome to the NHK.  It contains two parallel narratives, one of which is a fairly idealistic story of achieving your dream through hard work, and the other being the slow realization of all the uncomfortable aspects of that dream.  Hibito's will prompts Mutta to study and realize the danger involved in being an astronaut, complicating his long-time dream.  It's a realization not just of his brother's mortality but his own.  This is all expressed nicely in the faintly beautiful[1] pre-credits sequence in which Mutta dreams that he and Hibito are in place of a trio of astronauts that died in a recent crash.

Really, this is something that Mutta should have realized earlier, probably before he made it so far into the application process for a dangerous job.  But it's only through the refracted lens of his brother that he can really deal with his own mortality.  This isn't really resolved in this episode, and to some extent it can't be resolved, in life or in fiction.  If we're being honest with ourselves, mortality is such a complete break with everything we know that it's hard to even conceive, let alone accept.  As to whether or not this will stay an issue throughout the series, we'll have to wait (although perhaps those who aren't as behind as me already know.)

Following this we have a neat little intermission, as Mutta goes out to see the International Space Station pass by.  It's an activity that, we learn, he's done since he's a child, suggesting that despite his newfound awareness of the dangers of his job there's still a continuity with his mythological view of space exploration.  (This view is something that the space program actively cultivates, right down to the names of the space shuttles.)  The ISS in particular is a direct symbol of the way in which space exploration likes to narrate itself, as an international co-operation for scientific progress.  Of course, the actual station is a bit of a disappointment from a science-fictional perspective, looking more like a satellite with room for some people inside.  Babylon-5 it ain't.

Later on we learn that all of the other astronaut applicants were watching the station as it passed over Japan.  Space exploration, then, is a shared cultural signifier that can unite people from disparate places -- everyone from Mutta to Mutta's distant love interest Serika to Hibito to even the astronaut in the space station itself are connected through this one streak of light through the sky.  At the same time it's also a subcultural signifier -- the process of watching it unites the applicants and sets them apart from the rest of the population, who neither know nor care about the space station passing.  This nicely fits space exploration's dual status in our culture, as both a broad popular mythology and something that only a few really care about nowadays.

This power to unite and divide is echoed by the party Mutta attends for their group of applicants.  They're all gathered in pursuit of a common goal, but only five of them have been selected to move to the next round.  The irony that Space Brothers hits upon, intentionally or not, is that while space exploration places so much importance and emphasis on co-operation and unity between nations and individuals, it's also a profoundly individualistic process -- not only are the applicants competing against each other, but the narratives of space make heroes out of individuals (almost always the astronauts) instead of the mass of people responsible for the mission.

Of course, this story is not out to really surprise you, so all three of the characters we actually knew during the second stage have passed on to the third.  Along with them are two nondescript characters who seem to be slightly villainous, commenting about Mutta getting through do to his brother's fame, which is a dastardly insult only enhanced by it being somewhat true.  (Things that seem well-earned from the perspective of the underdog hero who wins things the unorthodox way can seem patently unfair from the perspective of the hard-working, plain competitor.)

Mutta then stumbles across yet another cause for self-doubt, as he learns about the specific and well thought-out reasons for Serika and Makabe's interest in becoming an astronaut, which make his vague childhood dream seem rather silly in comparison.  This seems to be the pattern of the series: Mutta overcomes one source of self-doubt, and promptly stumbles across another.  There are tests and challenges, but Mutta's main quest is an internal one.

This could quickly become irritating, but the series manages to pull it off and make things consistently interesting.  Its best weapon is its humour, which is sometimes so dominant that it would seem accurate to classify the show as a comedy.  It can also produce wonder and inspiration from pretty sparse materials -- somehow the same piece of music that's been used in every episode still manages to stir up emotion within me.  The secret isn't in the script -- it's in all of the elements that surround it.  Space Brothers is an example of what all of the guys who don't get lavished attention on as auteurs in television -- the musicians, the episode directors, the producers -- can bring to the table in making something better than it should be.

Next week: "Pancakes!  Pancakes!  Pancakes!"

[1]Whenever space appears in the show, it looks exquisite and exactly like the glorious fronteir that Mutta no doubt imagines it to be.  We'll see if things stay this way when the characters go there for real.

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